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A Little Story of Cycling in a Big Country

  • Submitted by: Axel Pichlmaier
  • Submission Date: 11th Feb 2005

After an official visit to Dubna, about 120 km north of Moscow, I had the pleasure to spend two days with friends on a dacha in a little village about 150 km east. It gave me a first idea of one way to escape the busy streets of the capital and I enjoyed my friends' hospitality very much. Here I would like to express once more my gratefulness for this first insight into the Russian lifestyle.

However, I had plans to do some cycling, and when my friends had to return to Moscow I set out for the unknown east. At that stage my plans were as follows: take the main road to Nishny Novgorod and then muddle yourself through in a big semi circle via Vologda and Petrozavodsk to Finland; fly out then from Helsinki. This would have been a distance of about 3000 km, ambitious enough for 18 days of cycling in the West. What I had not taken into account were the typical Russian difficulties.

This first morning is gorgeous: comfortable in temperature and a strong wind from the west as a tailwind. Having already done quite a bit of driving in Russia, I am slightly worried about the traffic on the main roads. My Russian friends have different concerns: they see the main problem in the omnipresence of criminal elements, my very limited to not existing knowledge of the Russian language and the unpredictability of the roads in general. So when I finally hit the road I am not only stocked with food for a few days but also with tons of good advice. On the bicycle, on the other hand, none of my friends has ever covered serious distances; this makes their advice a little bit less reliable.

The first bit is easy. Surprisingly few cars on the main road, some rolling hills, pavement in good shape, sometimes even with rideable shoulders. The road traverses a village every few kilometres and all villages show the same contrast between wonderful old wooden houses - many abandoned and dilapidated - and soviet-style concrete buildings, ugly from the architecture (is this architecture after all?), run down as if to fall to pieces immediately. Inside, if you have the chance to have a closer look, very often renovated and lovely decorated with a feeling for details you would never expect from outside. Usually it is the front door of these houses that stops you from entering (this sounds like a truism, but this is how it is!): it never has a window and very often represents the most neglected part of the building - except for the huge device to lock this door. The same holds for all shops. Having never been outside western culture with its wide open stores of all kinds, it costs me in the beginning some effort to enter these quasi sealed areas. But again, inside you find proper and clean shops, equipped with everything you need for the daily life.

After 30 km I decide to leave the main road and to use small ones to come to Vladimir. According to my map this should be possible easily. And really, this first time I have no difficulties finding my way. My friends had warned me that there was not a network of reasonable roads in Russia, normally only one main axis and then lots of dead ends to serve all villages. This I consider as widely exaggerated. Looking at my maps I can spot all kinds of roads going all over the place. Dead ends? Nowhere near! Sure, there are hardly any signs pointing to villages, but with the help of the sun it is still easy to pick the right way. In any case, there are just not so many possibilities to choose from. Looking back I consider it pure luck that I had hit no dead end, missing bridge, impassable obstacle of any kind on this first day's detour off the main road.

Just in time for lunch I arrive in Vladimir. We had visited this city with its beautiful ensemble of Orthodox churches the other day with my friends so I know of a good spot to eat my sandwiches and to relax a little from the efforts to ride a heavily loaded bike. It always takes me a few days to find the rhythm for living on the road.

To continue towards Nishny Novgorod my map does not show any byways any more; there seems to be only the main road. Temperatures are now up to almost 30 ºC. After the refreshing quietness of the churchyard, the dust of the road, the now heavy traffic, the sweat make an uncomfortable mixture, but I still enjoy the ride very much. Imagine: Touring in Russia! Exciting! Still, despite all enthusiasm I am getting tired, mentally and physically. On a big road in Russia you have to face a kind of traffic I have never seen in all countries I have visited. Russians know only two reasons to slow down: railway crossings (which just would break your axles if you do not slow down to walking speed) and the checkpoints of the GAI, the infamous road police. On all other occasions they drive like crazy and always as fast as possible. They give a fiddler's fart on any rules, pure Darwinism reigns the streets and there is certainly no room for self-conscious cyclists who try to insist on a 10 cm wide bit of the road for themselves: give way or die. Additionally, due to climate, heavy truck traffic and low maintenance budgets the pavement very often reminds of Swiss cheese, not too bad for the big wheels of a truck, but forcing a bike into a zigzag what in turn is accepted by none of the motorised community. Cyclist? You have no rights! (Yes, indeed: right turning traffic officially does not have to yield to pedestrians!).

In the course of the years since perestroika quite a few coffee shops have opened along the most vital Russian roads. Very often they are just a container, a few tables, optically not too convincing, but usually they serve reasonable Shashlik, a wide selection of pops, cookies and the seemingly unavoidable Nescafe. They all have Coke and Pepsi signs all over. I wonder how many millions of these have been shipped to Russia in the last years. My experience in these shops is always positive (although I have no very wide basis for judgement): a friendly hello and acceptable to excellent food and drinks. Certainly an easy way for travellers to find a meal or at least something to drink on the road. Small stores also flourish everywhere along the heavily travelled places. Generally, it is everything but a problem to find supplies along the road. Since most of the little shops are open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. or some even 6 a.m. to 12 p.m. it is even easier than in countries like, say Germany, where restrictive laws limit shop hours very much. The price for food is comparable or higher than in Western Europe. No paradise for budget travellers!

At 8 p.m., the sun is still far from setting, I feel no wish to carry on. Instead, I find a nice clearing in a forest, a few kilometres off the main road. It is still warm, almost hot, too windy for the mosquitoes to fly. A decent meal, singing birds everywhere, the voices of love crazy frogs in the swamps nearby, the smell of the fresh leaves of the birch trees, a tent and the good feeling after a long day's ride - for me the best possible way to finish a day of cycling, a day of holidays.

The next morning again is beautiful. How relaxed everything is under such conditions: no bears to fear, no immediate freezing once you leave your sleeping bag, no rain soaking everything.

Back on the main road the fight against the traffic restarts immediately. Hard times for guardian angles! There are about 120 km left to come to Nishny Novgorod, not one noticeable bend in the road according to my map. What a good opportunity for Lada racing. Many small villages, farmland, forests, hills, lakes and of course the thrill of riding furthermore east than ever make it very entertaining to cruise along.

After an hour I spot a café and stop for breakfast. Me being the only customer, the owner has a lot of time to ask many questions that I, what a pity, never understand. I can only guess that it must be the usual stuff of where, when, how which I, badly enough, know to express in Russian. He seems to be satisfied, looks only sometimes astonished, when my answer obviously has nothing to do with the question. Finally he makes me sign his guest book. In the mean time a bunch of teenagers is investigating my bike. They look shy and treat it as careful as a precious object from a different star. I cannot even find a trace of the hostility that so many anticipated.

In the early afternoon, in the middle of a never ending road construction, I get myself some more food - and have to buy much more than what I want to since the shop is out of change. This time I do not have to give a signature in the guest book, but I am asked to take a picture of the owner on my bike.

My expectations towards Nishny Novgorod are mixed. A city of two million, how can I find anything, what will it be like? No reason to worry. The «Lonely Planet» guide book gives a good description where to find a hotel and I arrive there almost on the shortest possible way. I am glad when I find myself in the lobby of the hotel: outside, the thermometer reads more than 30 °C, large quantities of sand are blown through the streets, properly tuned and environmentally not too unfriendly cars are as frequent as blue elephants. A nice surprise is that the camouflage-dressed hotel security knows some English to help me around. The room I am given is clean and well equipped with TV, VCR, balcony, fridge, bathroom... and the price is also top end. But still, after the dust of the road, what a relieve to have a shower!

The rest of the afternoon I spend sightseeing. The centre of Nishny is pretty nice. The Kremlin, now seat of the local government, is brand new renovated, more churches beam in fresh paint. From a hill you have a good view over the rivers Volga and Oka, both large compared to, for example, the famous Rhine. There is pulsing life in the streets of the centre, the Yarmarka (an exposition centre), and the boiling but run down area around the railway station. I buy a Russian made atlas of Russia, believing it would give more and especially more reliable information than my western made maps - o what a mistake! Looking back I doubt there are any accurate maps outside the military.
In the evening I get myself a bottle of beer and am about to have some dinner in a park when a group of three Russians joins my table. As soon as they find out that I am not Russian, and this they find out immediately, they have a reason to celebrate and the party can start. They have one bottle of vodka with them, it does not last very long. A place to get some more alcohol is never far off and we end up with a couple of beers and three bottles of vodka, dancing and singing through the streets. Luckily it is not far to my hotel! Who said it is dangerous in Russia? Yes, I agree, for your liver!

The other morning I get up late with a head almost too big to fit through the door of the hotel room. The sun is shining again and it is as hot as the days before. I am not in the shape to do more sightseeing, so I only change some money in the hotel and, finally, set out at 11, still badly suffering from last night's party.

The first day of cycling off the main road. I am curious. First challenge: how to cross the Volga? Sure, there is a bridge, but it is closed to bikes and the GAI seemingly checks everyone crossing. The bridge is something like 5 km long. It is the only Volga-crossing for too many kilometres to think of an alternative. So I cycle towards the GAI checkpoint, give a friendly wave to the police, and I am on the ramp. Nobody cares about me. I in turn care very much about the dense traffic. The roadway is so small that you would think nobody could pass when there is opposing traffic and at the same time a bike. Wrong! It is a long process to get used to Russian driving habits. They always overtake, sometimes touching my panniers, and there is no room to give way to the cars; to block the road entirely by cycling right in the middle of my lane I do not have the guts. A kind of footpath parallels the road. Somehow I manage to lift my bike over the crash-barriers. The path is not too bad at first glance. At least it is wide enough for a bike only and therefore too small for cars. There is only one minor problem: large parts of it are missing or, let me say, temporarily stored some 50 metres below on the bed of the river. Not necessary to mention that there is no warning of this. Why should they warn you? They did put a sign on 'no bikes'. It is not their fault if bloody tourists do not care and try to cross! I switch back to the main road. One or two more kilometres of hell and I am on the other side of this river. I can understand all those drivers who made not very friendly signs towards me. What a stupid idea to cross the bridge on a bike. I should have flagged down a bus or a truck for a lift!

Surprising enough, the road is now of quite good quality - and heaven knows what happened to the cars and the trucks. I am almost the only one to use it. The land is totally flat, farmland and forests, mostly pines, sometimes birch trees. Again it is hot and sunny, a strong crosswind accompanies my route.

The drinking of the night before still causes me some problems, and in the early afternoon I do need a nap - and take one in a field just off the road. But it is not only the drinking. Having changed from a comfortable office chair to long hours on a rough bike seat without proper preparation has slightly affected my ability to sit. I am forced into a constant out-of-the-saddle position, what makes cycling a bit awkward, but it could be worse, couldn't it?

The road also passes through villages with pretty wooden houses. Many look very much deserted what is not so surprising for an area with practically no jobs outside agriculture.

Later the day I come to Semjenov, city of about 10 000 souls. The view is typical: the picturesque centre is situated around a circle with a particularly ugly soviet style monument, concrete buildings and rotten industry further more out. Once more I am surprised: there are many people in the streets and I am pretty sure that not many cycling tourists pass that region, but people do not care about me. Nobody gives me a wave, not even a surprised, friendly, suspicious, hostile or what-so-ever look. Do they really not care, or are they frightened? Are they all poker players? Luckily there is one exception: children seem to be curious, but only if their mothers are close enough. If not, they tend to run and to seek shelter somewhere. Since I consider myself an everything but frightening person and even try to give myself an open and peaceful look, for instance by carrying very visibly a Bavarian flag and by never approaching people without greeting them, I am slightly irritated by this behaviour. On the other had, once you start talking to people like asking for the way, buying food etc., everybody is always very friendly.

Well, for me Semjenov is a place to get some supplies for the days to come. It marks also the point where I turn really into the backcountry. Again there are no road signs to guide the traveller, but I am lucky enough to pick the right road on the first attempt. This small road is on the first 30 km one of the best I have seen in Russia (except for the made-in-Finland ones close to the border). Only in the villages it is in a somewhat poor shape. I do not know why, but apparently it was the same in Germany after the war when they started paving roads: within the villages they were always paved and upgraded last. Out here, the motorised traffic has almost completely died, the best means of transportation between the villages seems to be - yes! - the bicycle. These Russian type bikes are unfortunately no longer available in western countries. They are certainly a bit heavy but there is nothing that could destroy a massive steel frame - certainly not the rubber bumper of a modern fancy car or a heavy load on a rough road. Russians transport everything on a bike, be it their kids, potatoes or huge amounts of firewood, nothing is impossible. Intermediate distances are covered by busses, running almost everywhere for a symbolic price at least twice a day. Many of the busses you would not expect to be still on duty but there are also some fairly new ones and some very obviously have already served for public transport in western cities: they still have the original advertisements on them. Out here, east of Nishny Novgorod, I even spot a bus that can be easily identified as former part of Munich's public transport. If you miss the bus, do not worry: Russians are more than ready to take hitch-hikers. This is a big difference to America: there I sometimes could have done with a lift, but nobody had ever given me one...

Why the roads in the villages are so ridiculously bad in shape is completely unknown to me. Even now, on a hot and dry day, they are sometimes difficult to use, in rain it must be impossible. Sand is a common feature everywhere, but nobody ever cleans up. Very often there is so much on the road that I have no choice but to walk the bike - as do the locals. The difference is only: they seem not to care about it. Pushing instead of riding adds only a factor four or five in time necessary to cover a certain distance, so why bother?

The streets in the villages are almost always very much populated, both on two and on four legs. Cows, dogs, goats, sheep, pig, hens, always and everywhere crowing cocks, cats, in one word: all living creatures you can think of on a farm. Everything is very idyllic except for two buildings: The 'dom kulturi', in soviet times probably the social centre, replacing bar, pub, restaurant, cinema, theatre and so on all in one, and second the local shop. Its massive concrete walls could resist armies. Only barbed wire and perhaps one or two automatic guns are missing to complete the impression of a heavily defended fortress. Sorry for exaggerating here, but this is what it looks like to me if I compare it to the typical open western style shop (sorry again, some liquor stores in the US look very much like that as well ...).

I loose my way in one of the villages and ask successfully to find it again. Not much later I loose it completely but find it again when, as unexpected as can be, a sign points back to the right road. When I fill my waterbottles on a well, a man warns me of the water and guides me to a different one. If I understand him correctly this second water is safe to drink without having to boil it. These wells, by the way, remind me very much of those you associate with the Hungarian Puszta. Unfortunately the water very often is not drinkable (the locals will tell you). I blame more the swamps and the lack of sewage treatment than industry on that. Luckily bottled water and a wide selection of excellent juices and sodas, usually western, but sometimes also Russian make, are readily available in all shops.

What a shame, the wind has dropped completely when I pitch up my tent in the evening so that the mosquitoes find excellent flight conditions. Nothing stops them from profiting of my presence. There is no choice: I do have to switch to jeans and long sleeves, but they still sometimes manage to bite through. Anyway, at least they are no longer able to eat me alive.

The next day in the evening I take a crucial decision. I never had to take such a step on a bike trip before: I decide to cycle back to Nishny Novgorod and to take bus and train to come closer to my final destination Helsinki. Why? Because I realise that I cannot make more that 20 km a day 'as the crow flies', while zigzagging 150 km to 200 km of unexpected detours. The only alternative is to cycle on big roads, but this - I mentioned already - comes close to committing suicide. You won't believe it if you have not seen it with your own very eyes, but maps and reality have almost nothing in common. Certainly the bigger agglomerations and main roads you can find on a map, but seldom the small villages and almost never the small roads. You do find small roads on the map, plenty, but they do not exist or can be everything from a swamplike footpath to an excellent brand new motorway. Missing bridges, ferries out of service or ending of the road in the middle of nowhere are common features. It is especially a wrong assumption that, when in doubt, the paved road is the main road. No way! It cost me some sweat to find out about that. Also, if Russians talk, say, about a wide bridge, it can be everything from one meter wide (presumably then wider than the old bridge they have torn down a few weeks ago or at least wider than the next bridge a few kilometres upstream which is only accessible going sidewise) to a three lane highway. You just do not know in advance and if your Russian is not perfect it is very hard to find out! On small roads the bridge can be missing altogether - good fun in hot weather - or consist of a few tree trunks in the water. No problem to walk a bike across, but certainly only very high clearance 4x4's can cross it (I would not recommend it on a motorbike unless you are a v e r y experienced motocross rider). But again, whenever I happen to meet people and try to speak to them, they are friendly and talkative. The latter is a bit of a pain if you do not know the language; they never answer yes/no, left/right, but they tell a story. If you cannot follow it the answer is of course totally useless and you might even seem arrogant if you do not follow their advise in the end.
In an almost entirely deserted village three old women start talking to me when I have a wash at this village's well.

A young man confirms again and again that I am on the right way and that it will be wider and better soon while I think I am in the middle of a field on the tracks of a tractor far off from everything like a road.

Finally I come to the village of Sokolskoje and I am deeply impressed: the river Volga is here about 10 km wide! The owner of an ice-cream pavilion invites me to spend the night at his place, but I am too much afraid of the drinking to accept (and I want to carry on anyway).

According to my map there should be a ferry across the Volga about 20 km upstream. When I come to the place the ferry is out of service since a long time. Okay, let's continue. There is also a bridge, only another 100 km of a detour ... In fact, I never make it to that bridge (if it exists which is everything but clear). I get completely lost. All the villages I come through from now on never exist on my map so I cannot even check with the locals which way to take and they cannot show me where we are. At least I see a few Orthodox churches, once impressive, now only a shadow of former pride and beauty. Those churches that have served as stables in Soviet times are in considerably better shape than the only closed ones. Only very recently it seems that people could start to remember their heritage. Slowly some reconstruction work begins like the fresh leaves of springtime on old honourable trees.

When the road is finally a dead end, I have to ask, but do not understand much of the answers. My third attempt to find out where I could be turns into the only situation on this trip where I feel slightly uneasy. I ask a women on the street, she starts talking to me without stopping and I do not understand a word. No problem so far, but then a man joins us who obviously does not like the Germans. He starts pulling stuff out of my backpack, brabbling something in a loud and unfriendly voice. It seems that the woman tries to calm him down but I decide that this conversation certainly will not get me anywhere and that, in fact, I might pretty soon loose parts of my equipment or worse. So I start to track back. Only a few kilometres later on, night is already dawning, I find a perfect place to tent: a clearing in the forest on a seemingly deserted byway, only frequented every now and then by some deer and a river nearby. Well, this path is not as quiet as I had thought, it turns out to be a 'through road'. Later in the evening a few people pass walking by. They look kind of bewildered at me. I wonder what they might think if they see my tent, my bike and myself having dinner.

It is raining a bit this evening but the next morning starts calm and dry. When routinely checking my bike I observe a lot of play in the front hub, in fact it is the brake pads that hold the wheel in its place. The reason is easy to find: the axle is bent, part of one bearing is pulverised. Here, in the middle of the woods, I have no means to repair that but at least manage to tighten the cone. This considerably improves the situation for a while.

It is the day of the way back towards Nishny. Smooth sailing almost all day long, more or less parallel to the river Volga (but never close enough to see it). Rolling hills, huge (former?) kolchoses, forests in between, a slight tailwind, no cloud in the sky, temperatures above 30 °C. To make things even better the road surface is mostly very good. That I still can hardly sit is a bit uncomfortable, but also not too bad. For lunch I get myself some food from a truly Soviet style shop: the two ladies at the desk do not care at all about me being present and refuse to interrupt their conversation. The choice is a bit limited but the little they have is neatly arranged. Since I do not want to buy years old Snickers bars and have not too many instant applications for basic gardening tools I end up with just some fruit and a loaf of bead. Picnic is a few kilometres later under supervision of the GAI. Typically Russian, they seem to ignore me, but sneak nevertheless every few minutes at me, less than 100 m away, eating my lunch under a mighty tree. I observe that it is slow going in an upper middle class western car in Russia. The GAI stop every single car of this category and search it while they let pass all the small Ladas and really big Mercedes'.

After the experience I already have I am a little afraid of this second bridge over the Volga but it turns out to be easy. One of the two lanes is closed due to road construction, there is alternate traffic on the remaining lane. This allows me to travel freely while the cars have to wait. Sure, police check the bridge, sure there is again the sign 'no bikes on bridge' and sure as well, nobody cares when I simply ignore this sign. The top of the bridge is high enough to let pass even the biggest Volga cruisers; from there you have finally a good view around. It is easy to see that the Volga is no longer a river but a chain of artificial lakes. Since these have been constructed in the 1930s, the river has become safer for ships and hydroelectric power can be produced. But it takes the water now 18 months to come from the headwaters to the mouth of the river compared to one month when it still could run freely - and the degree of pollution has certainly increased by at least the same factor.

On the other side of the river heavy industry is waiting for me. All the infernal traffic concentrates on a relatively small road. A strong wind blows clouds of sand and greasy smoke all over. It is terribly hot. I do hate it!!

Luckily the situation gets soon much better. I find some water to wash myself, a churchyard to escape from the noise and dust of the road comes like a windfall. A break in this oasis of peace is so refreshing that I carry on like new born. Everything is easier now, but still the traffic is dense enough and temperatures feel as high as in a sauna.

About 20 km before the city limits of Nishny I start looking for a good place to camp. It seems I am already too close to the city to find a quiet spot. After several successless attempts I finally follow the path underneath a powerline and get to a reasonable site. It is far from perfect but still acceptable. A pine forest seems to be the only kind of vegetation that can survive the entirely sandy soil combined with hot summers and fierce winters. In terms of shelter such a forest has not much to offer - but it is a paradise for all kinds of stinging insects. First I try to ignore them but soon it becomes unbearable and I have to escape into the tent. It is awfully hot there but better than among myriads of mosquitoes! I extrapolate to something like 200 bites on arms and legs. This i s a friendly welcome! The tent even serves as a repair shop for my bike. The situation with the front wheel had certainly not improved during today's 180 km and I still lack proper tools. One more emergency repair is possible. It feels weird when cycling (almost like having a flat tyre), but in the end I have no choice anyway.

Despite dirt and heat I fall asleep soon and wake up only to enjoy the freshness of the early morning.

Leaving my camp at six I arrive at the central bus station of Nishny Novgorod at eight o'clock. Once more I am more than lucky. Immediately I find a bus with a sign saying 'Moscow', find out the price for the ride and the departure time. It seems to me for a short while that Russian is not so difficult.

I have a few hours to kill before departure. A decent breakfast at the river Oka is a very good start. Next stop is at a bookstore. The remarkable thing about it is that I am addressed in German by a man who had seen me and my Bavarian flag at the bike. It turns out that he is German, living permanently in Nishny Novgorod since having been married to a Russian wife. Some hanging around in the parks, and excellent Russian ice-cream, then it is time to get on the bus.

There are not many people on the bus. It is a quiet ride on the so called 'Luxury Mercedes Coach'. The weather has changed. We pass through three thunderstorms and temperatures drop considerably, in fact far enough to make me switch from T-shirt and shorts to jeans and jacket. Looking at the main road now almost like a truck driver it seems to me even more like a miracle that I had survived the two first days of cycling. Two trucks completely use the available space on the road, there is certainly no room for a bike left. The busdriver is as crazy as all Russian drivers, overtaking virtually everywhere regardless the traffic situation. Several times I try to hit a not existing brake pedal or clamp myself into the seat to better absorb the immediate impact. Somehow nothing happens but I am more than happy when I can leave the bus in Moscow (I am just too much afraid of a car accident. Getting injured in a car is about the stupidest thing I can imagine. Being run over on a bike is one thing, shit happens, but ending up as canned meat on a smashed bus? No thanks!).

In Moscow it is really cold. I have no wish to spend a night on Moscow's streets or to give a fortune for a hotel. Luckily the 'Lonely Planet' recommends a youth hostel not far from the place where the bus drops us off. The hostel is excellent. It is an american-russian joint venture. For a reasonable price - in terms of Moscow, most expensive city of the world - you get a clean bed in a 6 persons' dormitory. I have the company of a Korean, an American, a French and a Danish guy. They all are not very talkative, but from the little they say I learn that we all share some common experience: mind blowing bureaucracy, not existing service (I say this as a German!), skyrocketing prices in Moscow and the usual small travelling events. When we all try to have some tea in the kitchen, staff cannot find us the key. It remains lost until the next morning. I do not mention this in order to complain but to give a little example of how service can be in Russia (it does certainly not necessarily have to be like that).

The other morning I have to sort a few things out. Being on a cycling holiday I have no wish to stay in Moscow. Fortunately the Leningrad railway station is not far from the hostel. It is not so easy for a greenhorn tourist like me to buy a ticket for a person and a bike, but after only two hours of useless queuing I finally find myself at the correct counter and soon own a ticket to Petrozavodsk, the Karelian capital, for the evening train the same day.

Buying a ticket as a foreigner in Moscow's Leningrad station works as follows: find out what train you want. This is actually rather easy since timetables are posted everywhere. To read and understand them is also no major problem if you are able to decipher Cyrillic and have a dictionary handy (or ideally speak Russian well enough). With this information you have to go to the 'intourist' counter. Do not expect anybody to speak anything but Russian. This counter is designed only for foreigners but the clerk does not bother with helping you a little by speaking slowly or writing down numbers. Why are you in Russia if you do not know the language? Tough! The prices for foreigners' tickets are considerably higher than those for Russians and can exceed fares of western Europe. You have no chance to escape this dual pricing system even if you speak Russian fluently of if you have some Russian friends buying tickets for you. At some stage you will be asked to show your passport and fined if you do not have the right ticket - at least this is what I was told. One justification for the high foreigners' prices is that they did not contribute with their tax money to built the infrastructure. For me it is robbery: in the end it is the foreigners who bring a considerable amount of money into the country. Concerning the bike I am sent to the 'luggage-and-other-problems' counter, this time no special treatment for foreigners. Luckily the young Russian lady behind me in the line knows some English and can negotiate with the clerk otherwise I would have been lost. It turns out that I do not have to buy the ticket for the bike in advance but that this has to be done later on the train. By the way, the same ticketing system holds for boats as well.

My train is leaving at 6 p.m. so I have some hours in the Russian capital. Have you ever been to Paris, London, Rome, Berlin, Copenhagen, Vienna or any other so called big city? Forget it. Moscow is the r e a l big city and like another planet compared to rural Russia. Everything is gigantic. Ten lane highways within the city are common and the traffic is crazier than ever. Unexpected for me is that everything I see is in an excellent shape, not like in Nishny where I liked the atmosphere but considerable parts of the city looked more like ready to be torn down than still inhabited places (and the same is true even for St. Peterburg once you leave the main tourist attractions). Several storeys high advertisements for American cigarettes reflect the new, at least temporary, Russian style of life. It is Sunday but all shops are open. The choice is as in every western city or better only the prices are higher. How can the Russians survive without financially breaking down? O world full of miracles.

I wander around without any fixed schedule, attend part of an orthodox service, am addressed several times in Russian for the way or something, but never for money. Do I look so Russian already??? In the early afternoon I return to the hostel to get my bike and stuff and come to the station just in time for a coffee and a look around at the 'kioski' before departing for Karelia.

I have no problems with the bike on the train. It only costs half the price of my already f... expensive ticket. The cars are clean and comfortable sleepers. I share my compartment with a young couple, it could not be better. The two of them speak a little English and help me communicate with the conductor. Of course, the sleeper costs extra (this train has only got sleepers), but it is the same price for Russians and foreigners.
After a quiet night we arrive exactly on time at nine o'clock at our final destination Petrozavodsk. Two people work in the luggage car and they had nothing to do all night long than to watch my bike. This explains the high price! They are extraordinary friendly, especially taking into account that they have to deal with me on official terms and not privately. On arrival, they try to have some small talk and help to get all my gear to the main hall. I am impressed.

The Petrosavodsk weather is not inviting for cycling. The thermometer at the station reads 6 °C, it is raining and stormy. I try to have breakfast at the lakefront but it is so cold without shelter from the wind that I am freezing and prefer to set out immediately to warm up on the bike.

My plan is to ride around the lake Onega, second biggest lake in Europe. This should take me about five days, giving me enough time to come to Finland within the timelimit stated on my visa.

The whole day I follow the Murmansk highway. For a while I am tempted to cycle to Murmansk, have a look at the nuclear subs and to forget about the lake, but then again I would have run out of time and would have to catch some means of motorised transportation at some stage. This, as a matter of fact, I try to avoid whenever possible.

It is easy pedalling on this highway. Most of it is in reasonably good condition, there is hardly any traffic and a constant tailwind makes life very enjoyable.

It stays cold all day long but the rain stops soon. The landscape visible from the highway is everything but exciting: forests, forests, forests, sometimes little agriculture and rarely a village to break the monotony. The terrain is basically flat. I do not like to say it, but this ride is kind of boring. Although a main highway there are as good as no cars and certainly not many international visitors, therefore the number of Shashlik eateries is very low. Nevertheless I find one for lunchtime. It is not bad, but the portion is very small, especially after a morning of cycling. The price on the other hand has no reasonable relation to what you get. This is capitalism: no competition, no low prices.

Late in the afternoon I stop again for a snack at one of these new places, but everything they have is a coffee. Very nice coffee indeed, only not exactly what I wanted.

What really strikes me at this highway is the way they did all the turnouts and junctions. These could handle the traffic of the Boulevard Peripherique in Paris but see only a handful of cars a day, if any. Some of the exits lead to the woods a few hundred meters apart and that is about it.

It is nearly eight o'clock in the evening when I leave the Murmansk highway and turn right to follow my way around the lake. Here is one of the rare occasions when they have put some signs on the cross-roads and the signs are accurate. Wow!

The next village, Medeshegorsk, marks the furthermost north point of this trip. I buy some food for the night and the next day. It seems to be true: the Karelian people are even friendlier than the Russians I have met more in the south. Whenever I stop somebody has a few words with me, and most of these people realise that I have difficulties with the Russian language and speak slowly or even dig out some old knowledge of German, French or English.

About 20 km later I find a good spot to pitch up my tent. Fallen trees here serve as perfect picnic tables. Unfortunate only that the wind has died and the mosquitoes don't miss their chance to attack.

It is raining a little the next morning. This slightly disappoints me since some people had promised me the other day good weather for the days to come. I keep thinking positive, it could be much worse, mainly snow, and set out early.

In the course of the day it is getting wetter and wetter and by lunchtime I am soaked through to the bones. I profit from the shelter a bus stop has to offer and wonder if it will continue like this: the world all grey, no villages, only forests, no views. At least the road is good. There is not much worse for a cyclist than a wet unpaved road, so I am still not too bad off.

Actually, in the course of the afternoon the rain is picking up more and more and I am more than happy when I once more discover true Russian hospitality. A small bus with a company of five stops next to me and the driver offers me a lift. Immediately I agree. From what I can understand the group is working as a road maintenance team and is on the way back home. They take me 50 km (!) to the next (!) village. When we arrive I have no wish to leave the warm and dry bus, but what can I do? One of the five accompanies me to the local food store and helps me to buy some food, then I get one more short ride out of the village. I am very grateful especially for this last short hop since the most difficult thing is always to find the right way out of a city or small town.

Once more it is time to look for a place for the night, but I decide to carry on until the rain would stop or until it is late enough to go to the tent. I am lucky. In almost no time the rain stops, the sun is out and it is warm. The road dries quickly and camping becomes easy.

The other morning is bright, but not for long, and the day soon turns into the worst cycling day I ever had. The first bit is easy. With a tailwind I am cruising along on a beautiful brand new road, the sun is shining, it is slightly hilly terrain, a mixture of forests and agriculture and every few kilometres a friendly village. The people in the streets sometimes even risk to give me a wave, some cars blow a friendly horn.

On a good little downhill through one of these little villages I do not want to stop only because a waiting crowd makes strange signs to me. A road sign urges all traffic to make a U-turn now, right now, but who would ever care about such a sign on a bike?

Very soon I wish I had followed the sign. I hit the end of the pavement. There is somebody working who warns me that the next 25 km would be of very poor quality. Now I know what it means if Russians call a road 'very bad', but on this morning I am full of enthusiasm and energy and ignore all warnings. All too soon I regret about it.

Only a few meters later I can only walk my bike, sometimes not even that. Road construction has turned the road into a swamp that no vehicle could cross, tanks and dirt bikes included. Usually I sink in only to my heels, but sometimes to the knees, and, of course, then the bike is stuck in the mood as deep as up to the axles. To make things worse it starts to rain again. This wet clay is like glue. Very often the wheels do not turn anymore and then I desperately try to clean them with the little tools I have. There are a few stretches where I have no choice but to divide my load into three and to carry everything by going three times. Once I lose equilibrium when trying to balance the bike on a tree trunk over a creek and the bike and all the gear is floating - luckily not diving. The Ortlieb panniers stay perfectly dry inside and tight. Chapeau!

However, apart from this kind of slow going I am still in a good mood. This is the kind of feeling I never had. Good experience, at least looking back. I do not meet one soul on this 25 km. Who else would be crazy enough to use this road? Certainly nobody knowing its condition! No bird is singing, it is perfectly silent except for my occasional curses and the rain on the puddles. Strangely enough every couple of kilometres a marker still exists and this helps a lot to keep me going: this means I am at least still on the former road. I do hope that the information that the road would be nice again after 25 km is correct! Again, a missing bridge. The river luckily is small enough to wade through. I do no longer bother about putting off the shoes. They are soaked in mud anyway, the water can only clean them. Then, all of a sudden, the sound of a truck engine. Hard to believe but true: the nightmare is over, the road is a road again and rideable, after exactly 25 km and 8 hours of hard work.

The road is gravel and rideable, yes, but the bike is not. Everything is covered in mud, wheels and chain hardly move any more, switching gears is impossible and the wet sand of the road acts like sandpaper on the little that is still in working order.
Not far away I spot a turnout to the left, a downhill and something like a lake. Perfect, just what I need! This lake even has a kind of landing giving easy access to the water. I wash everything: the bike, cloths, shoes, myself. It is great. A school bus is passing by, the children looking at me with wide open eyes. In my present shape I were presumably an attraction even in countries used to biking tourists. But here? Will some of the little ones associate bike and tourist for the rest of their lives? This bus, no, it is more a 4WD army truck with high clearance and a container to transport people, and the sound of its brakes around the next corner make me curious again. Perhaps a village? I hardly believe it. There is a little village. In fact, it is not s o small. They have a grocery store where I can get some food for dinner. I am not really desperate for food, but I prefer to have some reserves, just in case (like for the next push road, then 50 km ...?).

The rain has stopped. The sun is out and I feel more like sleeping than like carrying on. A logging truck offers me a lift, but I refuse. Since I am back on something like a road, very wet and very sandy, it is a question of my honour to ride and not to get a ride. Little later, a grove of birch trees in the middle of sun beaming meadows invites me to camp, and I do not refuse. Though rather late in the evening it is almost hot now. My shoes start to dry like the rest of my equipment. Not getting wet is one thing, wearing quickly drying fibres is another important feature if you happen to fail on the first point.

Ironically enough I am short on water this evening. I have to boil my spaghetti in apple juice; in combination with sausages and red pepper an exotic meal that is especially enjoyable after a difficult day on Russian rural roads.

The next morning my tent is frozen, but there is not a cloud in the sky and, anticipating a wonderful day's ride, I can have an early start. The sandy road is not really dry yet, but it is fairly easy to cycle. There is hardly any forest now. The free view on farm land is relaxing for the eyes (unfortunately they have to concentrate most of the time on the road to watch out for potholes). The little villages are pretty, unspoiled by modern architecture, people chatting outside enjoying the beautiful morning. Everybody seems to be smiling like the brightly shining sun. I have a second breakfast after 80 km in the town of Vitegra. It is market day and western - or is it middle eastern? - ways of trading have left no trace of soviet economics.

It feels like temperatures would approach the 30 °C again. This, together with a fresh wind, quickly dries everything. In fact, no trace of the last day's wetness can be found on my boots. It makes me think of the trip in Alaska: three weeks of constantly wet shoes. How nice to think of it if you are dreaming along comfortably under the blue sky.

A few hills now make the ride only more interesting, I even manage to catch sometimes a glimpse of the lake; once again the road is of excellent quality.

No road sign but a friendly person make me turn right towards Vosnenje. The road is much smaller and unpaved now. Fir forests grow instead of the farmland before. Again it is easy riding and I appreciate it very much.

There is no bridge over a bay of the lake, but a frequent free ferry not only maintains transportation but also gives a few jobs. Later the day I try to buy some cheese. My pronunciation must be very bad: the vendor looks at me in surprise, disappears for a while and returns with a sickle. We both laugh of the misunderstanding. The cheese I have to get somewhere else, this shop has run out of it.

There are only 110 kilometres left to come back to Petrosavodsk and I am looking forward for an easy day to come.

Sometimes the lack of private property has also its advantages. In the United States you risk getting shot if you decide to ignore a fence defining somebody's property and pitch your tent there like I do this night. The odometer shows 95 miles for the day. No doubt: so far best cycling day in Russia!

The next morning my tent is white with ice but the sun thaws it up quickly. It is an easy day, this bit to Petrosavodsk. The only potential difficulty arises from the dogs in the villages, but even these are lazy this morning. The trick is not to attract the first dog's attention. If he stays quiet the others will not bother you either. But if he does start to bark you will be surrounded by scores of dogs in no time. They are rarely aggressive and as first means of self defence a few squeezes from the water bottle or one or two well aimed hits with a heavy lock or the pump are very effective.

I arrive in the Karelian capital for lunch which I take in the brand new 'Café Express'. Like in the Shashlik place the other day food is nice, but prices are fantastic. Poor Russia!

When I am walking my bike around downtown a man starts talking to me. It turns out that it is Boris, head of the local bicycle club. What a coincidence! I tell him my problems with the front hub. No chance to find spare parts here, he says, but he promises to ask his friends if they can do something for me and suggests I should call him in the evening.

For a place to stay I follow again the 'Lonely Planet'. It recommends the hotel Severnaja. The place is okay. 60 rubles for the room, four rubles for the showers and five rubles for the bike. As stated in the guide, they do have the arguably hardest loo-paper in Russia (it looks like ordinary A4 writing paper cut in four). The rooms are clean and the staff is friendly enough.
I pass a lazy afternoon, walking around, enjoying the atmosphere. It is a beautiful town. What I like very much is that virtually everybody is sitting outside with a bottle of beer, certainly a side effect of the large student community. Even when it starts raining later on, people seem not to be very much concerned about it. Marx and Lenin are still omnipresent, but the locals have chosen to ignore them, and that is probably the best they can do. The boulevards are wide, the houses in the centre seem to me mostly dating from the turn of the century, well maintained and skilfully decorated. Yes, it is an agreeable town! By the way, they even have a Ben and Jerry's ice-cream parlour. It is the only one in Russia, and their production is as good as in the States, only less (!!!) expensive.

In the evening Boris picks me up to visit his friend Volodia. So I need my bike after the official working hours of the hotel's locker room. I have no success to get it out; in fact, it requires all persuasive skills of Boris to convince the hotel staff to make an exception... welcome back good old times! Volodia's flat serves also as bicycle repair shop. His skills are impressive. It seems he is capable of repairing everything concerning bikes; carefully he straightens my axle, adds new balls for the bearings, replaces the cone. While he is busy Boris shows me some pictures of their bike adventures. It is some relief for me that apparently Russians face the same difficulties as I do: roads leading to nowhere, missing bridges, swamps etc.

When everything is finished my new friends ask me for the price of my bike in Germany - and at the same time refuse any payment for what they have done for me. They do not even let me pay for the spare parts. I feel bad about it.

The other morning it turns out once more that I must be the luckiest guy in the world: it is raining cats and dogs and I have a room in a hotel. Finding a place for breakfast outside the hotel costs me a lot of time and soon it is the hour to get on the ferry to Kishy Island. I have decided to invest one day to go there since everybody had recommended it as the finest collection of wooden architecture you can imagine. To be exact it is not a ferry going to Kishy, but a kind of swimming rocket, a hydrofoil, the pride of soviet engineering.

For most tourists Kishy Island is the only reason to come to Petrosavodsk. It is impressive, but still, everything looks a bit artificial and the entrance fee for foreigners, including the boat trip, costs almost as much as two nights in a hotel. Also I must say that most villages in Karelia have similar houses to offer, only that these are still inhabited and that there is no entrance fee. I do not recommend to go to Kishy unless you want to see this particular collection of wooden buildings. However, for me the visit has a big advantage: I have culture and protection from the rain!

By the way, it is not easy to take bulky luggage such as a bike on such a hydrofoil. There is simply no room for it. In the end the crew lets me take my bike into the passengers' cabin. It goes without saying that the fare once more is astronomical.

Back at Petrosavodsk at five o'clock it is still cold but the rain has stopped and it even clears up a little bit. I get myself some more food for the road and set out towards Finland.

I have to take the road leading also to St Peterburg and, wide as it is, it really deserves the name highway. It seems to me that Volodia's repair job has changed my bike completely. I am flying without any effort and only the night stops me from carrying on and on. As usual I camp in the woods and feel much better than the night before in the hotel.

The next morning I have breakfast in the sleeping bag. That is what I do hate: to leave the warm and cosy sleeping bag when it is freezing outside or raining or, worst of all, both, and to pack all the gear. It always makes you feel like a homeless refugee for a while.

The whole day it is not getting much warmer. Whenever I stop I have to put on a few layers of extra cloths. It is Whit Sunday for the Catholics, but I doubt that it is the same in the Orthodox church. Nothing reminds of a holiday except the quietness of the villages, but these never seem to be very busy anyway. During my second breakfast I manage to have some conversation with two old men. This makes me feel for a little while like I could speak Russian.

One more day of cycling through forests. I am really desperate for some mountains and some free view! Still, somehow it is much more interesting this day. Twenty kilometres of road construction slow me down but give me the opportunity to compare again Russia and America. This time the Americans finish first. Here in Russia, the construction seems to be dominated by chaos and lack of willingness to get the work done (I apologise deeply if I was fooled by some misleading impressions).

There are two junctions in the middle of nowhere where my map is luckily precise enough, since there is nothing else I could use for orientation. Unfortunately it is also correct that the map does not show any villages. Being very low on food I could do with a shop of any kind. When I finally find one they are sold out of almost everything in terms of food including bread, only some apples of Italian origin are left.
In the late afternoon I make it just before a thunderstorm to a middle sized village. They have an old style government owned food store and two private ones. All of them are not very well stocked but have more than enough to satisfy a hungry cyclist.

I shop and eat until the rain stops. Then I carry on and pitch my tent at the bank of the lake Ladoga, said to be biggest lake in Europe, only one hour later. It is an especially nice spot I have picked this night but so freezing cold that I have to seek shelter in my sleeping bag almost immediately.

Early the next morning I am off to Finland. The road is brand-new and, as I learn only a few hours later, built by the Finnish. Nothing indicates that it is heading out of Russia only and nowhere else. Yes, they do not help you much to find your way around, the Russians.

The procedure of crossing the border is straight forward. Fill out your customs declaration, show your passport and visa. My passport is investigated for about ten minutes, than I am allowed to leave the country. No check of luggage, no problems of any kind, but also no friendly word.

FINLAND. The only country in the world I know where the border guards are really friendly. They teach me a few words in Finnish and ask about my trip in Russia and my plans for Finland. Presumably it was more than smalltalk, but to me it seemed like conversation among old friends, not like official investigation.

As far as the weather is concerned Finland offers everything but a warm welcome. It is raining at four degrees. But where is the problem if you can find a petrol station with a cosy cafeteria every few kilometres to warm up if necessary? Travelling in Scandinavian countries is so incredibly easy (especially if you come from Russia): excellent roads (even the gravel ones), helpful and accurate roadsigns, perfect infrastructure, a population of experts in foreign languages - what else could you ask for?

I take it very easy for the rest of the day. A coffee here, some window-shopping there, some 50 km of cycling. I decide to profit from the excellent campgrounds for the remaining five days of my trip. This first evening I am the only guest at the Karlavan Kievari campground. It is beautifully situated at one of the uncountable lakes. I have picnic in a sauna hut (of course, it is not operating, except for the showers that I greatly appreciate) with a perfect view over the lake.

The next day starts with some wonderful cycling. Tailwind and a small winding road lead me 66 kilometres to Savolinna. It is the setting that you like here, not so much the city itself. There is a famous castle, once upon a time forefront against the wild east, there are a few historic buildings, a few of the typical tourist attractions, all in all a nice but unspectacular place. Lunch at the harbour is short since the rain starts again. I kill some time in a few shops waiting for the rain to stop. After two hours I decide to carry on. If you are afraid of the rain, you should better not cycle in northern countries! Well, this decision is not very glorious. It is 80 km to the nearest campground and raining hard all the time. When I finally arrive I feel wet through and through. Ironically the rain stops immediately after my arrival. Luckily the staff is friendly enough to let my dry my cloths over night in the restaurant.

Although far from being really dry I decide the next morning to wear the same wet cloths again to keep some dry ones as a reserve for the worst case. Breakfast at the campground is excellent with porridge, eggs, yoghurt, bread and makes me forget the unpleasant feeling of being dressed in wetness. When I leave the campsite the owner's German Shepherd follows me for about half an hour as a friendly companion.

The morning ride to Riistina is similar to the ride the day before: lakes, hills, forests, a small road, not too cold but also not sunny.

Riistina itself has not much to offer. there is a supermarket - for lunch - and a bar - for a coffee afterwards. In the early afternoon the sun comes out, how pleasant!

As usual I am very lucky with the campground I find for the night. The management does not know English, but they let me camp and profit from the excellent showers and the nice kitchen cabins. Some bike maintenance is more than necessary: a broken spoke needs replacement, the rear rim is worn through and therefore slightly bended. It is still no problem to ride it, but I try not to use the rear brakes any more. The right pedal has a lot of play due to a damaged bearing. I decide to replace it with the spare I am carrying. Some oil refreshes all moving parts.

Perhaps I should not say so, but all cyclists will understand: the highlight of the next day is clearly the lunch! I have bread of a quality that even dwarfs the already magnificent Russian production and the roast pork, fresh from the butcher's, deserves a poem. Unfortunately I do not know very well to rime. This trip turns more and more into a 'Best of Scandinavian Food' week.

This is also the first really warm day since Nishny Novgorod. How enjoyable it is to be warm from the very morning! Only in the afternoon, when I am just comfortably cruising along, a little shower tries to cool me down. The unpleasant thing about this particular rain is one of its side effects. The already pretty worn chain is finally killed by the wet sand sticking to it. A broken chain is not difficult to repair, but it feels as if a lot of repair jobs had to be done during the last 24 hours. It reminds me strongly that cycling in Russia is one of the most interesting ways to mistreat a bike.

This night's campground has a special attraction. They have many pets there, among these and most admired by everybody are certainly the goats. It is simply too entertaining to watch these guys and the children playing with them when relaxing in the evening sun.
Although situated at a lakefront I once more miss my chance to go for a swim. I am too afraid of the nine degrees water with the showers locked for the night and me wanting an early start.

This last day of cycling is again wonderful. The weather and the roads are just perfect. I cannot believe that it is the last day for this trip. In the early afternoon I arrive at the Helsinki campground. It is completely new made, certainly worth a visit. Still, since it is not yet tourist season, it is a quiet place.

What is left of the day I spend in Scandinavia's biggest shopping centre. No comments.

While it had been easy to find the campground, it takes me quite a while to make it from there to the city centre the next morning. It is the usual problem of cycling in a big city: how to avoid the big roads and nevertheless come within a reasonable time to where you want to be. Again, every cyclist will understand.

Finally I make it. My job is to organise some box for the bike for the air transport back home and to find out how to come to the airport. Both are easy tasks so I end up with half a free day in Helsinki. No, it is not exactly free. Somehow I am chained to the bike and therefore limited to only a few activities. I do not do much but visiting a seafood market at the harbour and loitering in the parks, reading and checking the bike. Yes, it will definitely need quit a few new parts.

Generally my impression of Helsinki is only positive, a friendly city that deserves another visit.

The last night I spend at the waiting area of the airport before I fly out at seven in the morning.

There is only one more bit of cycling left, 100 kilometres from Lyon to Grenoble. This is surprisingly difficult. The headwind, broken bearings in the headset as well as the additional luggage with all the souvenirs slow me down a lot and the feeling of 'soon back to normal' does not increase my speed either.

So what about a conclusion? Russia is great, but a little difficult to cycle if you are in a rush or do not want to take the main roads. People, on the other hand, are very friendly, but you should speak Russian much more than the very basics I know.

Finland, sure is a western European country, and when you are used to western lifestyle it is like coming to paradise after Russia. I would never recommend to go to Finland first and then to Russia.

It turned out again that cycling is the best way to get around in every country - if you are ready to accept some imperfections and do not mind dealing with a wide choice of little daily problems.

Grenoble, Sept. 19, 1998

1 DM = 3,15 rub

1 $ = 6.05 rub (May 1998)


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